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Bryonia dioica, bryony

Summary

This hedgerow climber is such a strong laxative that, even in the 16th century, its unrestrained medicinal use was not recommended. Those men who bought bryony root, thinking it to be mandrake, may have been 'up all night' but not in the way they'd hoped.

Family

Cucurbitaceae

Meaning of the Name

Bryonia
From the Greek bryo, to shoot or grow rapidly, a reference to its vigorous growing habit of sprouting each year from the tuber roots.  Dioscorides however calls it ‘Bruonia Ampelos’.  Bruonia is Greek for ‘to swell’ and ‘Ampelos’ means ‘vine’. It is possible that this refers to the exceptionally large roots which the plant forms.
 
Dioica
Dioecious. The male and female are different plants.

Common Names and Synonyms

bryony, white bryony, English mandrake

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

It contains a glycoside, variously called bryonin(e) or bryonidin, which is a dangerously strong purgative and an alkaloid called bryonicine.

There is little reason for anyone to ingest any of the plant in modern times but its historic use as an alternative to mandrake must have had unexpected, but unrecorded, ill effects.

Incidents


Bryonia dioica, bryony

Bryonia dioica, bryony

In 'Plants Poisonous to Live Stock' (1917) Harold C. Long says that 'cases of poisoning have occurred' but gives no details. He says that no poisoning of domestic animals has been reported but a 1931 paper described a case where horses were poisoned by Bryonia dioica and, in 1986, P Whur reported the death of a border collie 22 hours after eating bryony berries.

Long says, however, that the plant has 'an unpleasant odour and a nauseous juice' which suggests that this is another plant where smell and taste discourages accidental ingestion. This could explain why there are very few case reports of poisonings in the literature.

Folklore and Facts

As an example of how large the root grows, John Gerard says that the Queen’s surgeon, William Goderous, showed him a root weighing half a hundredweight and the size of a one year old child.

This vigorous root growth meant it could be used to produce a counterfeit mandrake root. Either by placing moulds around the growing plant or by digging it up, carving it to shape and reburying it, bryony roots can be made to look like mandrake and the plant was sold as mandrake by ‘mountebacks and charlatans’ according to at least one contemporary writer. Sadly, it is not clear whether the author was so appalled because these fakers cut into his profits from growing real mandrake or whether he had fallen victim to the unpleasant effects.

According to Pliny, pounding the root together with a plump fig will remove wrinkles but only if a walk of a quarter of a mile is taken immediately after application. Combining the laxative effects of bryony with those of figs makes one wonder if such a walk could be completed uninterrupted.